The Decline Of The House Sparrow
Last week the RSPB announced the findings from the Big Garden Bird Watch 2020 and once again house sparrows took the top spot for the 17th year running. However, don’t let this seemingly positive result deceive you. Although house sparrow numbers have started to recover in the last few years since 1979 the population of this once common bird has dropped by 53%.
Bird Spot HQ is in London so the house sparrow is a bird close to our heart. At one time whenever you were in the capital you would almost always be guaranteed to see flocks of house sparrows squabbling and chirping on pavements, fences, trees, and park benches, or in urban back gardens. The Cockney sparrow was as much a fixture of London as pie and mash and pearly kings and queens.
In fact, sparrows were so ubiquitous in London that in the East End, “Hello me old cock sparrow” is still used as a form of cockney greeting. These gregarious birds didn’t seem to be bothered by the noise, traffic, or crowds of people in London, but unfortunately the chances of seeing those large flocks of sparrows now is greatly diminished with the city losing 70% of its sparrows between 1994 and 2001.
And it’s not just in London that sparrows are disappearing. Along with many other common British birds, sparrows have declined in numbers so much that they have been put on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.
In the 1950s the UK sparrow population was estimated to stand at about 9.5 million pairs which increased to 12 million pairs in the 1970s. But in the 1980s the numbers started to fall and the current population is estimated to be just 5.3 million pairs.
It is not fully understood why the number has decreased so drastically but some of the explanations given include increased urbanisation leading to a lack of food and suitable nesting sites, and an increase in the number of predators such as magpies and squirrels. Despite their name, sparrowhawks are not thought to have had any impact on urban sparrow populations.
In 2000 the Independent newspaper offered a prize of £5,000 to the first scientific peer-reviewed paper which could explain the disappearance of the house sparrow from London and other urban areas. By 2014 only 3 entries had been submitted and as far as we know the prize has still not been awarded.
Although today we may have a lot of affection for house sparrows this has not always been the case.
Sparrow clubs and suppers
In the 18th century sparrows were so prolific that parishes in Britain set up Sparrow Clubs with the aim of destroying as many of them as possible. The Preservation of Grain Act from 1532 had permitted the destruction of a large number of species of wildlife because of the supposed damage they caused to crops. Bounties were paid to sparrow catchers until the 19th century and the practice of culling sparrows continued until the start of the Second World War.
For example, in Buckinghamshire, the Tring and District Sparrow Club founded in 1891 set a record of destroying 5,345 sparrows in the first 5 months of 1892.
A year later the Bucks Herald reported:
Tring and District Sparrow Club have killed 8,000 since last October. The effort of the members are now being directed to their nestlings with a view to extermination. Should the efforts of club members be as successful this year the farmers in the locality will be freed from 11,000 of these impudent destructive little pests. Since the clubs formation in October 1891 16,000 sparrows have been destroyed by members or their employees. Prizes have been awarded to Messrs J. Fulks of Hastoe, J. Pratt of Marsworth, T. Mead of Aldbury and W. Mead of Gamnel.
And in 1917 in West Farleigh, near Maidstone in Kent The Rat And Sparrow Club, known colloquially as The Loyal Tickle Back, Jack Sparrow and Mole Club, drew up a set of rules outlining how subscriptions would be allocated at the end of each season based on the numbers of points members received for the despatch of not only sparrows and rats but also bullfinches, greenfinches, and stoats.
Amongst the details of how to present your cull to the parish one rule also bizarrely forbade smoking:
“Members found smoking in Stackyards or on any premises whilst catching sparrows or rats, or loading shot guns with ordinary paper instead of stout wads shall be disqualified from all prizes.”
In continental Europe sparrows and other small songbirds are still prized as delicacies but historically sparrows have also been eaten in the UK.
In Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 cookery book The Experienced English Housekeeper (or to give it its full title The Experienced English Housekeeper, For the Use and Ease of Ladies, Housekeepers, Cooks, &c. Wrote purely from Practice, and dedicated to the Hon. Lady Elizabeth Warburton, Whom the Author lately served as Housekeeper: Consisting of near Nine Hundred Original Receipts, most of which never appeared in Print} you can find a recipe for sparrow dumplings:
Mix half a pint of good milk, with three eggs, a little salt, and as much flour as will make it a thick batter, put a lump of butter, rolled in pepper and salt, in every sparrow, mix them in the batter, and tie them in a cloth, boil them one hour and a half, pour melted butter over them, and serve them up.
Sounds delicious no?
Safe nest boxes for sparrows
Sparrow pie was another popular dish eaten in both rural and urban Britain until the 1950s although one pub, The Peldon Rose Inn near Colchester, was still serving up sparrow pie many years later. Mrs Ollivant, the landlady, was renowned for her culinary specialities and annually baked a sparrow pie. Once such pie baked on the 16th January 1967 reportedly contained 100 sparrows perhaps meant for the remaining members of the local Sparrow Club.
Archaeologists have found the remains of sparrow pots that were hung up outside houses to encourage birds to nest in them dating back as far as the 1500s. The nest boxes also included a ‘robbery hole’ in the back so the householders could remove the eggs and fledglings for the cooking pot. Wealthier households also erected sparrow pots and took the adult sparrows for use in falconry.
Luckily our tastes have changed and our concern for house sparrows has increased.
There are many ways you can help reverse the decline of house sparrows such as providing food in your garden such as sunflower hearts and mealworms, or by leaving a section of lawn to grow wild to encourage the insects that make up the house sparrow’s diet.
You could also provide them with a nesting site. House sparrows will nest in creepers such as ivy but they prefer holes in buildings, or nest boxes designed for colonial species such as sparrow flats or terraces.